“There’s a Nana for everyone, you know.”
A visit to Biriney’s workshop

“You can call me Biriney if you want, or Ms Löschner – I’m not strict about it. And you’ll find me in the annex building, I’ll be doing some sanding tomorrow morning,” she tells me in advance over the phone. I’ve just arrived in the courtyard of the old estate, and I can already hear the sounds of sanding. I step through the door, which is ajar, and take an inquisitive look around. The morning sun falls in slanted rays through the lofty space. In the centre of the room, I see a large sculpture and beside it, fully engrossed in her work, a creature wrapped up in heavy work clothes. Thick, pale dust forms a cloud around the two of them. I can see my breath. It’s just as frigid here in the workshop as it is outside.

The sanding machine shuts off. “I’m right on time, it seems. Good morning!” I say as loud as possible, hoping that Biriney will finally notice I’m there. She doesn’t look up yet, but rather wipes the fresh sawdust from the sculpture, strips off her gloves and gently tests the surface with her finger. In my opinion, it looks smooth, even and velvety.

“Special commissions are the heart and soul of what I do.”

I cautiously draw closer and circle the sculpture. I keep my distance just to be safe, because it seems to me that the nude female form is about to spring to life. And it’s still just an unfinished work in progress. “She’s just pre-sanded,” Biriney explains, “I’ll do the real sanding by hand over the next few days. Only then will I paint her. This Nana won’t be ready for a few more weeks.” I take another turn around the figurine.

I learn that it’s a commissioned work. A customer in Geneva wants to give it to his wife for their 25th anniversary. Biriney places a large white cloth over the sculpture, almost tenderly. Then she peels off her overcoat, which has such a thick layer of dust on it that its original colour is barely recognisable. “Can I offer you a coffee?” she asks.

“This way – the painting area is over there, by the way. And my studio is next door, upstairs.”

A small staircase leads to the main house. I note the carefully restored architectural detailing. We take a seat at an old oak table in the kitchen. “I think the Nana is also very aesthetically pleasing in white,” I begin. “Yes, but this Nana, in particular, will be painted with especially vibrant colours. The buyer told me that his wife is passionate about gardening. She’d like the figurine to be painted in the colours of her favourite summer flowers.” Biriney warms her hands on her turquoise mug and goes on. “These are the kind of customers who were able to tell me straight away what they had in mind. That’s not always the case.”

This sparks my curiosity. “What kind of person commissions a Nana figurine, anyway?” I ask. “There’s no quick and easy answer to that. Every Nana is different, each is one of a kind, you know – just like us. Some customers are more reserved and ask me what I would recommend for this or that occasion. Others are very open and tell me a lot about what moves them. That already gives me concrete ideas about how their custom Nana should look. Many commissioned Nanas are the product of a lifetime of experiences. People often want a Nana after they’ve experienced a challenge, a crisis, a serious illness or the loss of a loved one. Their Nana is like a protector. Or a guardian angel that watches over them and gives them strength.” I hear a lot of emotion in Biriney’s voice.

“Most of the time, however, joyful occasions are what prompt people to ‘treat’ themselves to a Nana or give one to someone else. A birthday, for example, or an anniversary or retirement party. And then there are the Nanas that tend to play a more showy role – of course, that happens too. In those cases, they’re placed where everyone can see them in sterile office spaces – law practices, doctors’ offices or businesses. But even there, they bring movement and colour to the space!”

“What’s it like for you – don’t you get bored over the years of only making Nanas?” I ask. “Oh no, not at all. Nana figurines are simply my passion in life. And every project brings with it new challenges. Small or large – I devote my entire soul to them. And I’m always developing new techniques, materials and improvements.”

My eyes are drawn to her left thumb, which is dark purple in hue. She notices my glance. “Hmm, yes, that’s true passion! Of course, injuries can happen, despite every precaution. But they don’t stop me!” She smiles, almost to herself.

“Nanas are ambassadors”

“Actually, is it hard for you to give away the finished Nanas?” She shakes her head firmly. “No, no, I don’t make the Nanas to just lie around here with me, of course. I want them to go out into the world. Each one has a role to play – and there’s a Nana for everyone. You often think to yourself, ‘this is the meeting of two kindred spirits!’ Some people think Nanas are just cheerful, cheeky broads. But they’re ambassadors, too.” My expression must be baffled, because the next thing she says is: “Of course! My Nanas try to set aside the seriousness of life and focus on what’s beautiful and colourful. And of course, they also embody the size and confidence of a woman.”

My investigative side kicks into high gear. “How did you start creating Nanas in the first place? Where does your passion come from?” But Biriney’s said enough. “Oh, you know, that’s a very long story. I’ll be happy to tell it to you another time. But now I have to get back to work – I have a piece that needs to be finished by a certain deadline.”

Friederike van Arnen